Doctors highlight climate impacts on hospitals, healthcare

BOSTON (AP) — Doctors and leaders of Boston’s renowned hospitals gathered Thursday to discuss how climate change is impacting their profession.

The symposium at Harvard Medical School in Boston was billed as the opening salvo of a national effort to get the healthcare industry to confront climate change’s impacts.

Organizers said other institutions across the country have committed to develop similar programs in the coming year or so, including universities in California, Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Regina LaRocque, an infectious disease researcher at Mass General, said officials need to be more honest about climate change’s role in the spread of deadly diseases.

She said last year’s eastern equine encephalitis outbreak that struck Massachusetts particularly hard underscores the challenge facing public health officials.

“For too long we’ve been hesitant to say that this association exists,” LaRocque said.

Front line doctors also need to redouble efforts to emphasize health “fundamentals” like proper hand washing, insect avoidance and trust in vaccines, she said. They also need to “expect the unexpected,” as infectious diseases like cholera are increasingly being found in places where they haven’t been seen before due to changing climate patterns.

At the same time, public officials need to be conscious of the long-term health impacts of their responses to climate-related outbreaks, she said, pointing specifically to the widespread use of aerial spraying in Massachusetts during last year’s eastern equine encephalitis outbreak.

Physicians also need to be aware that poor and minority communities are often the most at risk of climate change’s impacts and better tailor their care with that in mind, said Gaurab Basu, a primary care doctor with the Cambridge Health Alliance.

The northeast is warming faster than the rest of the continental U.S., and immigrants and minorities tend to live in dense, urban “ heat islands ” that are among the hottest communities in a given region, he said.

Children’s needs are often ignored in the broader climate change debate, added Lucy Marcil, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center.

They can experience mental health trauma from natural disasters because they don’t have a way to express their feelings.

They also have a greater vulnerability to asthma and other respiratory ailments that have increased with longer pollen seasons tied to climate change, Marcil said.

“We have a moral duty to speak up about this,” she said.